President Mikheil Saakashvili is facing resistance to his fast-paced attempt at implementing far-reaching political and economic reforms in Georgia. Critics of the president complain that Saakashvili is embracing anti-democratic methods in order to promote democracy. Saakashvili counters that changes to Georgia's government structure retain checks and balances on executive authority
Following Saakashvili's landslide victory in January's presidential election, he began pressing for constitutional changes that critics contend enhance executive authority at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Saakashvili insists the changes in governmental structure are needed to improve the state's chances of overcoming chronic economic and political problems, including corruption and separatism.
Under the constitutional amendments approved by parliament in February, the president obtains the right to disband parliament if legislators fail to approve a state budget in three successive votes. The chief executive also wins the right to block any legislation deemed "unconstitutional." Another major feature of the amendments is the establishment of the post of prime minister, who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the government's economic policies. The president now exerts direct control over the so-called "power ministries" defense, state security and interior.
In providing for a restraint on executive action, the legislature can now force the resignation of the cabinet with a three-fifths no-confidence vote. In cases where a no-confidence vote parliament gains a majority, but falls short of the three-fifths hurdle, the president has the option of reshuffling the cabinet or calling new parliamentary elections. The legislature additionally retains the ability to impeach the president.
On February 17, parliament, in a lopsided vote, approved a new cabinet headed by Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, a key Saakashvili ally during November's Rose Revolution. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Saakashvili hailed the government as "the most progressive and interesting in Eastern Europe." Among the government's immediate tasks, Saakashvili said, would be reforming the pension and health care systems, as well as creating a more favorable economic climate.
"This government has to deal with several tasks, both short-term and long-term," Saakashvili told Georgian television. "One of the short-term tasks is to stabilize the situation concerning revenues. ... Another thing that is extremely important for this government is to prepare tax reform and create a tax system, once tax discipline has been established."
While there are few who might dispute the Saakashvili administration's stated aims, there are many who oppose the means that it is using, especially the constitutional changes. Specifically, many civil society advocates in Georgia are concerned that the executive branch, the president in particular, now has excessive powers. At a February 6 conference to review the constitutional amendments, some non-governmental organization representatives suggested that the constitutional changes could be manipulated by a chief executive whether Saakashvili, or a future leader to establish a dictatorship.
Tina Khidasheli, president of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, suggested that the president had usurped crucial oversight powers from the judicial branch. Other NGO activists and opposition politicians said Saakashvili could bully the legislature via threats to disband it. "The president is now able to give the parliament the sack almost at will," said Akaky Asatiani, leader of the Georgian Traditionalist Union.
Some also take issue with the method in which the constitutional changes were implemented, saying there should have been more time allowed for public discussion. In addition, they question the legitimacy of the sitting parliament -- given the fact that its mandate was extended because of the massive vote-rigging during the November legislative elections forced the annulment of its results to approve the constitutional changes.
Ghia Nodia, head of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, noted that Saakashvili's reliance on the current parliament to approve the governmental changes represented a contradiction on the president's part, in terms of his rhetoric and his actions. He added that Saakashvili had disparaged the parliament in the past for its inefficiency. "If this parliament is so inefficient and worn out, is it legitimate enough to pass laws of such immense importance?" Nodia asked.
Saakashvili has sought to downplay such criticism, saying that the constitutional changes have established a "European model" of democratic government, in which, as in the case of France, there exists a stronger executive branch than that which exists under the US system.
"There are probably issues here [in the constitutional changes] that are debatable because any legal issue is subject to a thousand interpretations," Saakashvili said, in comments broadcast by Imedi TV. "We have studied Europe's experience and we have studied our own problems and the mistakes that we have made before drafting a model that we believe is the most effective at this stage."
The Saakashvili administration's stance towards the repeat parliamentary elections March 28 appears to be reinforcing concerns about excessively strong executive authority. On February 27, Matyas Eorsi, the chief of an election monitoring group organized the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, (PACE), criticized the Georgian administration for not implementing recommended changes to ensure a fairer voting process.
Eorsi said the Saakashvili government was resisting changes to improve the balance and oversight capabilities of the Central Election Commission. In addition, PACE has urged that Georgia lower the electoral barrier for a political party must clear in order to qualify for parliamentary representation from the current 7 percent of the vote to 4 percent or 5 percent.
Given the current balance of political forces, and the existing election rules, some observers say it is possible that the pro-Saakashvili-Zhvania electoral bloc could secure a near monopoly of parliamentary seats in the March 28 election.
Saakashvili has resisted lowering the 7 percent barrier, arguing that Georgia needs a consolidation of political parties to ensure more efficient leadership. Lowering the barrier needed to enter parliament "would be an incentive for the opposition, and parties in general, not to unite," Saakashvili told Rustavi-2 television.
"If there are small groups with 3, 4 or 5 percent [of the vote], they will not be in parliament to protect the people," continued Saakashvili, claiming that small parliamentary factions often trade their votes for political and economic favors. "I want a parliament that has ideas, and an opposition that has a hope that they will come to power and replace us. Only a united opposition can be such an opposition. Therefore, lowering the barrier, to the contrary [of what many contend], will facilitate corruption."
This report is based on reporting by three regular EurasiaNet contributors -- Jaba Devdariani, Giorgi Kandelaki and Giorgi Lomsadze.